It was winter in the southern mountains, and the world was barely awake when Jimmy and Richard hopped out of the rusty pickup. The drive had been an hour and a half, through Tennessee’s one lane dirt roads. Jimmy had slept while Richard drove, as was their custom, to Richard’s dismay. The only thing Jimmy ever had to do was pick the lock on the cattle gate. 4:03 AM, Richard thought as he checked his watch. Too early for civilized people. Good thing there’s nothing civilized about either of us. He spat into the heavily grazed grass at his feet, and took an obligatory moment to shiver from the bitter cold.The frost crunched under his feet as he circled the car to open the trunk and pull out the guns. He retrieved them set them on the ground on top of their cases, rounding back to the front of the car, he leaned on the hood as he lit a cigarette.
As his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness he found himself in awe. In 53 years he had seen this speck of God’s creation hundreds of times, but it never ceased to amaze him. Before him, through a thin trail of blue-grey smoke, a steep hill rose to the heavens. The top was saturated with oak and maple trees, this was all virgin forest. On the slope, cows and their calves were slowly waking up, standing and walking nonchalantly in the shoulder-high taupe grass, that was shorter the further down the hill you looked. It was easier to graze at the flat parts if you were a cow, near where they had parked the truck. The sky was purple and grey, and the sun was nowhere to be found. To the left of the car was a dilapidated barn, tin painted blue that was gradually rusting. Sections of the roof were collapsed. No cows had lived here in some time To the left side of it on the exterior there was a mounted cow skull and a notice: NO HUNTING/FISHING/TRESPASSING WITHOUT PERMISSION AND PAID FEES.
Cow pies littered the ground around him. He flicked the still smoking butt of his cigarette into one with a sigh of disgust. He and Jimmy were going to have to watch where they stepped. He had never thought about killing or stealing cows from a cattle ranch, just the wild deer that populated it. But no, the farmer had to keep count somehow, and unless he was the trusting type, or just plain stupid, he would know something was going on. The strange beauty, along with the extra precautions he’d been taking to avoid the cow excrement, had almost made him forget that he was covered head to foot in ridiculous camouflage, and here completely illegally, before he sabotaged his serenity with his own thoughts.
He stood up from the hood of the car and scratched his bearded chin. The laugh lines around his eyes were a little more enunciated this year. A few more grey hairs, some extra creaks in the joints. Sun spots on his browned skin. He was aging, but still poaching. He had to feed his family somehow. Maybe he’d have grandkids to feed soon, still breaking a set of arbitrary unnatural laws. The thought made him feel half like an idiot, like he should get out of the woods and just work overtime, and half like he was some outlaw from the glory days, a billy the kid, a butch cassidy. After all, here he was, violating the law with his ever-present sidekick.
Richard and Jimmy looked at each other, shrugged, and set off up the narrow path that they had been clearing in preparation for this morning, rifles slung over their backs. They said nothing, communicating in the nonverbal, unwritten language they had developed between themselves, speaking volumes with their anxious and waiting eyes. They were some of the last remaining American individuals. The age of the cowboy, the outlaw, the rugged outdoorsman had concluded, but they were still here. Relics of a long passed age.